Douwe Osinga's Blog: How much is a billion?

Friday, August 29, 2003

How much is a billion?

The american deficit might reach a cool 500 billion next year. Sounds like a lot? It is. But I wonder how many people have an idea just how much. How many people could tell me how many times somebody has to donate a 100.000. dollar (which is probable the order of money normal people have any idea about) to the federal government in order to make the guys in Washington brake even? Not a lot, I'm affraid.

A lot of times, the descissions made in politics are about numbers, so this is worrying. There are of course a lot of complicated and important issues, the general public does not understand, while hopefully our representatives do, but numbers are not specific to one issue, they are the language in which the issues are discussed. the 2004-2013 period, reaching a total over the decade of $3.7 trillion it says in the article quoted above. That is a lot! Or is it. If you don't know how much a trillion is, this only scares you because it has a seemingly large number in it and is said in a very drammatic way. (In Europe, of course, a trillion is quite something else, which complicates the problem here).

So, if a politician says that on a yearly basis 400 million euro is lost to crime in the Netherlands and says this in drammatic way, the knee-jerk reaction is to do something about. 400 million sounds like a lot of money, of course. If you don't know about numbers, how are you ever going to see that 400 million isn't that much on total economy? Sure, if there is something easy to do about it, we should, but otherwise sometimes it is better to accept it as 'about what you expect.'

A lot of people find it perfectly acceptable that they have no ideas about numbers. 'I'm just not very good with numbers, how many billion did you say?' Politicians lie and it is the peoples duty to catch them in order to make democracy work. As it is know, there's lies, damn lies and statistics. How are we ever going to catch the worst lies if they are in a language we don't understand?